Orcas, Dolphins, and Whales: non-human persons and animal rights

With few exceptions, most cultures put homo sapiens at the center or the apex of creation. Humans, it is generally believed, are distinguished from other animals by our self-awareness and our ability to use tools, to think, reason, and construct meaning and representations about life. The Abrahamic religious traditions are most notable in their anthropocentric vision of human purpose in creation; and although the metaphysics and teleology are sometimes challenged by advances in science and technology, the fact remains that human beings remain the paradigmatic case against which other animals or even artificial intelligence is measured. As a Muslim and a theist, I avow my belief in the unique status of humans; however, as someone who also believes in science and is keenly attuned to the environment, I have a great love for nature and the animal world, and a great desire to protect them.

It is with this, then, that I want to propose to put ethics before metaphysics in considering the moral status of what legal scholars and ethicists call “non-human persons.” In particular, I want to look at cetacean intelligence of orcas, dolphins, and whales to understand the way in which we might classify them as non-human persons which would be given certain rights and protections. Doing so, I argue, would enable us to collapse the bifurcations that influences much of Western thought thereby ushering in a more holistic, ecological and relational approach to ethics and being.

To begin with, I would like to make a distinction clear: I am not claiming that orcas, for example, are morally equivalent to humans, but I am suggesting that we ought to be more cautious with regard to understanding our place in the animal world as a whole, particularly as it relates to the precariousness of life itself. My argument below follows philosophical and ethical reasoning, though this might also be understood in the context of religious texts. The story of Yunus (aka Jonah) and the whale is found in both the Bible and the Qur’an. In short, Yunus felt discouraged that the people of Nineveh did not heed his call to worship God, and so he left in anger. Being cast into the sea, followed by being swallowed by the whale, was ostensibly punishment for his loss of hope and leaving the city without God’s permission; though on another level the exegetical scholars point to the fact of his supplication “O Lord! There is no god but you: Glory to you: I was indeed wrong” (Qur’an 21:87) as instructive of submitting to God’s will and the significance of humility. Indeed, the Qur’an goes on to say elsewhere: “Had he not been of those who exalt God, he would certainly have remained inside the whale until the Day of Resurrection.” (Qur’an 37:143-144). The whale, on this reading, is integral to the Abrahamic worldview insofar as it is the manifestation of God’s power and dominion over creation, as well as his lesson to human beings to remain humble. Continue reading

Prenatal Testing and Human Capabilities

By Aobo Dong

According to Vardit Ravitsky’s paper on “Shifting Landscape of Prenatal Testing,” there exist two competing rationales for prenatal screenings for severe disabling conditions like Down syndrome. The “reproductive-autonomy” rationale justifies screening by invoking a woman’s individual autonomy. In contrast, the “public health rationale” justifies pre-natal screening and termination due to a Down syndrome diagnosis by invoking the costly public health expenditures that must be spent on children born with these disabilities – resembling a utilitarian calculation that minimizes pain and maximizes pleasure for society as a whole. According to Ravisky, the public health rationale creates social pressure that incentivizes women and their families to make the decision to terminate. Thus, the public health rationale is heavily pro-termination, while the individual autonomy rationale could lead women to make decisions in either way. What she proposes as a solution is to combat the public health rationale to allow women to make autonomous decisions free of social pressures, and establish a stronger “informed consent” procedure that better informs the implications of pre-natal screenings and Down syndrome so that women could make the best possible decision for themselves. This blog post will shed more light on this issue by invoking Martha Nussbaum’s capabilities approach to human rights.

A central feature of the capabilities approach is “adaptive preference” that measures the relative success in achieving the 10 core capabilities cross nation-states and social classes. Nussbaum is aware of the fact that “individuals vary greatly in their need for resources and in their ability to convert resources into valuable functioning.” Therefore, it is not even adequate to provide an equal amount of educational resources for one student with Down syndrome and another without any learning disability. Nussbaum would argue that the child needs something even more than a formal education, a proposal that could be much more costly than a regular education alone. She would not assume that a student with the condition must have a low self-worth; instead, she would consider the factors in the child’s social environment that may have caused such low self-esteem, and direct resources to improve the child’s own sense of worth and maximize her future potentials in living a fully human life. This is consistent with capability 7B (respect), which stresses their ability to “be treated as a dignified being whose worth is equal to that of others.” Continue reading

Bioethics in Islam: Principles, Perspectives, Comparisons

An important questions in Islam, recurrent across time and space, is whether Islamic political theory recognizes rights claims against the state as distinct from rights claims against other members of the community. This continues to be an important subject today, intersecting the fields of law, religion, and moral philosophy. The classical tradition is divided on the matter, with the legal theory of the Shafi’i school of jurisprudence saying that rights are to be accorded viareligious authority, while the Hanafi school emphasized the universality of the notion of human inviolability (dhimma)—and the innate rights that derive from it—as God-given, universal, and applicable to all societies from the beginning of time.

Whereas in Western law there is generally a separation between law and ethics, in the Islamic tradition, there is more of a dialectical tension between the two: Where religious inwardness is more highly developed, attitude and intention are weighed more heavily, whereas in its absence however formalism and legalism are advanced as the ethical ideal.

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What are Our Duties and Moral Responsibilities Toward Humans when Constructing AI?

Much of what we fear about artificial intelligence comes down to our underlying values and perception about life itself, as well as the place of the human in that life. The New Yorker cover last week was a telling example of the kind of dystopic societies we claim we wish to avoid.

I say “claim” not accidently, for in some respects the nascent stages of such a society do already exist; and perhaps they have existed for longer than we realize or care to admit. Regimes of power, what Michel Foucault called biopolitics, are embedded in our social institutions and in the mechanisms, technologies, and strategies by which human life is managed in the modern world. Accordingly, this arrangement could be positive, neutral, or nefarious—for it all depends on whether or not these institutions are used to subjugate (e.g. racism) or liberate (e.g. rights) the human being; whether they infringe upon the sovereignty of the individual or uphold the sovereignty of the state and the rule of law; in short, biopower is the impact of political power on all domains of human life. This is all the more pronounced today in the extent to which technological advances have enabled biopower to stretch beyond the political to almost all facets of daily life in the modern world. Continue reading

Understanding the Neuroscience and Philosophy of Consciousness

By Yusuf Lenfest

Think of the last few times you’ve had a very lifelike dream. Running, reading, or having conversations with others, are all activities that might happen during a particularly vivid dream. But would this be considered consciousness? Surely being in a state of sleep is not the same as being in a waking state; but if you are able to communicate, to attend a lecture, perhaps even to give a lecture whilst you sleep, what does this mean in terms of your brain’s activity? Very deep in the sleep cycle, a person may not respond immediately to touch or sound or any other sensory stimulus. That is, they may not wake up, though it cannot be ruled out that an external stimulus might influence the sub-conscious mind and hence their dream. We’ve all had the experience of hearing an alarm “in our dream” which is really our real alarm, yet our mind re-interprets it and incorporates it into our dream until we regain consciousness, i.e., wake up. What if you couldn’t wake up from your unconscious state? And if so, what would this mean for how your brain processes your thoughts? In effect, what would it mean for your lived reality if you could only live in your mind?

Beyond being a fun thought experiment, these may be some very relevant questions now that doctors have treated a vegetative-state patient with an experimental therapy leading him to regain partial consciousness.

It was reported yesterday in National Geographic, Popular Science, the Guardian, and elsewhere that a 35-year-old man who had been in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) for 15 years has shown signs of consciousness after receiving a pioneering therapy involving nerve stimulation. The French researchers reported their findings to the journal Current Biology. Led by Angela Sirigu, a cognitive neuroscientist and director of the Institut des Sciences Cognitives Marc Jeannerod in Lyon, France, a team of clinicians tried an experimental form of therapy called vagus nerve stimulation (VNS) which involves implanting a device into the chest designed to stimulate the vagus nerve. It works by giving off miniscule electrical shocks to the vagus nerve, a critical brain signal that interfaces with parasympathetic control of the heart, lungs, and digestive tract.

So again, what does it mean to be conscious?

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Medicine and Ethics: Religious or Secular?

By Yusuf Lenfest

There is no lack of controversy when talking about religion and medicine in America today. Medicine is studied, practiced, and firmly rooted in the corporal world while religion draws inspiration from texts, traditions, and the incorporeal. Yet from an historical perspective, religious pasts do shape the present, particularly in the realm of ethics and moral reasoning. Indeed, whatever one’s spiritual or philosophical predilections, religion continues to play a major role in the dialogue on medicine and health care in Western society.

Bioethics in particular has become a topic of growing interest in America, but there has been little critical discussion about its contextual underpinnings, which stem largely from a Western Christian perspective. This is not to say that another religion would arrive at radically different system of morals. While differences do exist amongst religious traditions, across both space and time, experience and common sense tell us that diverse religious traditions do in fact share in much of the same moral principles and foundations. So what might other religious traditions say about, or contribute to, the discourse on bioethics? Should religion even be included in the conversation, especially given that health care and healing belong to the sphere of medicine?

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Terminally ill teen won historic court ruling to preserve her body after death

By John Tingle

The British media have been reporting and discussing widely the case of JS v M and F (Cryonic case), 10th November 2016 in the High Court of Justice, Family Division, [2016] EWHC 2859 (Fam). The case is the first in the UK and probably the world to deal with the issue of cryonics and a 14-year-old girls dying wish for her body to be preserved after her death with the hope that at some time in the future she will be brought back to life after a cure for her illness is found.

Truth is stranger than fiction and this case raises some fundamental legal and ethical issues which will occupy future courts and the legislature for some time to come. I could not imagine a more novel and difficult medical law case.

The facts

JS had a rare form of cancer and her active treatment came to an end in August when she started to receive palliative care. Over recent months she has used the internet to investigate cryonics: the freezing of a dead body in the hope that there may be a cure for the illness that she had and will be brought back to life at some future time. Mr Justice Peter Jackson heard the case and stated in his judgement that the scientific theory underlying cryonics is speculative and controversial and that there is considerable debate about its ethical implications. Since the first cryonic preservation in the 1960s,the process has been performed on very few individuals, numbering in the low hundreds. There are two commercial organisations in the United States and one in Russia for this form of preservation.She is one of only 10 Britons and the only British child to have been frozen by Cryonics UK , a non-profit organization. Her body was transported to the USA and is being stored in a vat of liquid nitrogen by the Cyronics Institute in Michigan. Continue reading

Research Assistant III: Work with Professors Eyal, Hammitt, Freedberg, Kuritzkes, and collaborators on HIV cure studies’ risks, risk perceptions, and ethics

The research assistant will work with the principal investigator Nir Eyal and collaborators from the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, Duke University, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the Brigham and Women’s Hospital as well as the ACTG HIV trial site network. The multidisciplinary team uses methods of clinical epidemiology, economics, simulation modeling, and normative theory to predict risks in early-phase HIV cure studies, assess how much likely candidates for participation understand those risks, and make ethical recommendations on the conduct of HIV cure studies.

The research assistant will help prepare, conduct and analyze a pilot survey expected to take place in a US site of the AIDS Clinical Trials Group (ACTG). The survey will assess perceptions of HIV cure and of cure study risks. The research assistant will also promote other research and grant-related activities, through literature reviews and assistance in the preparation of abstract, poster, and manuscripts for publication, grant applications, a simple project website (using Harvard’s user-friendly OpenScholar platform), and slides for lectures and seminars. The research assistant will be in touch with top researchers in HIV cure, medical decision making, and ethics from around the country, to facilitate our meetings, a workshop, and regular conversations to plan the research and debate ethical issues around early-phase HIV cure studies.

For the full job ad:
https://jobs.brassring.com/1033/asp/tg/cim_jobdetail.asp?partnerID=25240&siteID=5341&AReq=33776BR

Ethics of experimental Ebola interventions

By Annette Rid

In “Ethical considerations of experimental interventions in the Ebola outbreak“, published yesterday by The Lancet, Zeke Emanuel and I discuss what we take to be the key ethical questions about the use of Zmapp and other investigational agents in the current Ebola epidemic. In essence, we argue that the national and international response to the epidemic should focus on containment and strengthening health systems, rather than experimental treatments and vaccines; that experimental interventions, if they are used, should be distributed fairly and only in the context of clinical trials; and that advance planning is needed for research in future Ebola and other epidemics, as well as for making any proven interventions against Ebola accessible in affected regions.

The full article is available open access. Be sure to check out the Lancet’s new Ebola Resource Centre as well, which includes many other interesting pieces and a podcast (access here podcast) covering—among other things—our paper.

If NeuroGaming Enables the Enhancement of Visual Multitasking, Should We Revise Distracted-Driving Regulations?

By Matthew L Baum

I recently saw someone walk into a signpost (amazingly, one that signalled ‘caution pedestrians’); by the angle and magnitude that his body rebounded, I estimated that this probably really hurt. What I had witnessed was a danger of walking under the influence of a smart phone. Because this man lacked the ability to tweet and simultaneously attend to and process the peripheral visual information that would enable him to avoid posts, the sidewalk was a dangerous place. If only there existed some way to enhance this cognitive ability, the sidewalks would be safer for multi-taskers (though less entertaining for bystanders).

In a public event on neurogaming held last Friday as part of the annual meeting of the International Society for Neuroethics, Adam Gazzaley from UCSF described a method that may lead to just the type of cognitive enhancement this man needed. In a recent paper published in nature, his team showed that sustained training at a game called NeuroRacer can effectively enhance the ability of elderly individuals to attend to and process peripheral visual information. While this game has a way to go before it can improve pedestrian safety, it does raise interesting questions about the future of our regulations surrounding distracted driving, e.g., driving while texting. In many jurisdictions, we prohibit texting while driving, and a California court recently ruled to extend these regulations to prohibit certain instances of driving under the influence of smart phones (i.e. smart driving).

But if individuals were to train on a descendant of NeuroRacer and improve their ability to visually multitask, should we give them a permit to text while driving?

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Upcoming Discussion: “The Objectivity of Ethics and the Unity of Practical Reason”

Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer have an interesting new article in the most recent issue of Ethics on “The Objectivity of Ethics and the Unity of Practical Reason.”

Abstract:

Evolutionary accounts of the origins of human morality may lead us to doubt the truth of our moral judgments. Sidgwick tried to vindicate ethics from this kind of external attack. However, he ended The Methods in despair over another problem—an apparent conflict between rational egoism and universal benevolence, which he called the “dualism of practical reason.” Drawing on Sidgwick, we show that one way of defending objectivity in ethics against Sharon Street’s recent evolutionary critique also puts us in a position to support a bold claim: the dualism of practical reason can be resolved in favor of impartiality.

On Monday, PEA Soup will begin a discussion on this article, led by Roger Crisp.  I hope to see you there! -YK